The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: July 24, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assisting Priest at St. Michael’s Church
I spent most of the last week in Alexandria wrapping up my formal employment at Virginia Seminary. Among the many joys of being with my colleagues one last time was learning that a book project I’d been rooting for is moving forward.
The book is a biography of one of my spiritual role models, a brilliant and holy man named Mark Dyer. Bishop Mark dined with kings and lived in monasteries and studied obscure theologians. But he was also, as they say, the kind of guy you could have a beer with.
Bishop Mark was incredibly kind but not afraid to let you know he disagreed with you. He was “in love with the life” of Benedictine religious community, but he was still excited by the prospect of a visit to Universal’s Harry Potter theme park.
And over the course of maybe ten conversations, he taught me more about Christian living than probably anyone except my parents.
Like all great spiritual teachers, Bishop Dyer knew how to help people cut through the clutter of their life to address the things that really matter. He told me that he spent his life trying to convince people that Christianity and especially prayer should be simple.
Not easy. But simple.
I think of Bishop Mark and of this point when I hear passages of scripture like today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. “Lord, teach us to pray,” a disciple asks. That sounds like the kind of complicated question you better buckle in for.
Yet Jesus’s primary answer is just 42 words:
When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
Besides advice on prayer, this is simple, direct, concrete theology. Jesus tells us we should address God as someone who will care for us, someone who wants a relationship. He reminds us that this God is holy and is actively working to bring about a better world.
He challenges us to depend on God for our needs—especially the daily inspiration to choose reconciled life with our neighbor. And he gives us permission to be honest about the fears we face.
That’s it. Nothing about how often to pray or for how long. Nothing much about fancy prayer techniques or precise formulas. Nothing about what happens if we don’t do it, nor much about what happens if we do. Though he does tell us in parables that God will listen and respond by giving the good gifts we ask for.
Indeed, if Bishop Mark were here, I think he’d tell us it’s no coincidence that the only real commentary in this passage involves this issue of being honest with God and ourselves about what we want and need.
I love Jesus’s first illustration: a friend knocks on our window late at night and shouts in that he needs to borrow some bread. “Sorry dude! Kids are in bed, candles are out, not gonna happen.”
But Jesus knows what we know: we’re not gonna leave our friend hanging, especially if that friend is persistent about it.
God won’t leave us hanging either. We don’t know what form our answered prayers will take, but we can be sure that God is listening and will respond, even if that response is just the strength to make it through another day. I think the more honest we are about our needs, the more likely we are to notice when God answers our prayers.
I remember seeing Mark after a long and painful summer. I told him about the poor decisions I’d made and all the bad habits I’d fallen into. “How’s your prayer life?” he asked. I gave him some answer that basically boiled down to “it’s complicated,” and his reply was that it shouldn’t be.
“Your first prayer in the morning should be for yourself,” he said. “Tell God how you’re feeling and what you want. Don’t hold anything back. Think about the psalms—the people who offered those prayers didn’t withhold a single negative thought. God is big enough to handle whatever anger or sadness or fear you might be dealing with.” God is big enough to handle it.
At a time when negative feelings seem to drive our public discourse, I can’t help but wonder how different our world might be if we first brought our anger, sadness, and fear to our discourse with God.
I think this simple and honest approach to prayer gets to the core of why we do it in the first place. We shouldn’t pray because we think it’s our duty. We shouldn’t pray because we think God wants to be buttered up before responding to our pleas.
We should pray to consciously invite God into our lives. Whatever else we add, it should help us feel close to God, dependent on God, loved by God. The living Christ is already pleased to live within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer should help you remember and celebrate this reality.
I know this passage is about the Lord’s Prayer, but let me tell one last story about Bishop Mark and the psalms.
“When you’re reading the psalms,” he said, “just stop when you hear that verse where God seems to be speaking right to you, right in the place where you are today. Wherever it connects, just stop and sit with it, even if you’re praying in church.”
He told me that he’d at first had a problem with this advice when he received it from his novice master, the senior monk supervising his formation: “But what if we all stopped at the same time when we’re singing the psalm together?” Mark asked. His master replied, “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful.”
The final measure of our prayers isn’t their beauty or their length or even their regularity. It’s their ability to bring us close to God, to make God real for us wherever we are, present in and among the many real challenges we face each day.
Honesty and vulnerability are all that’s required. Words? Very much optional. But especially on the days when you’re at a loss for them, remember Jesus taught us a simple prayer that has everything we need.